All shall be well… | June 18

Twelve Hymns Project: When peace like a river

Text: Job 29:1-5; 30:16-20

In May of 1373 Julian of Norwich was deathly ill.  Close enough to death that she was given last rites.  No one knows what Julian’s birth name was.  She was an anchoress, meaning she had anchored herself, stationed herself, within a small church cell, itself attached to the larger building, like a barnacle on a rock, or a ship.  This was common in the late Middle Ages.  She had chosen a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, committed to staying in that particular place.  It was a tiny world spent mostly inside the anchorhold, food and water handed in through a window.  But it held a promise of opening one’s mind and soul to the vast expanse of Divine reality.  This is the life Julian had chosen, or the life that had chosen her.

Her cell was attached to the Church of St. Julian, which is where she likely got her name.  The church was in Norwich, England.  Julian of Norwich.

Along with her physical ailments, Julian had been overwhelmed to despair by sin.  It consumed her thoughts.  She felt so deeply about this, she wrote there was no harder hell than sin.  That sin itself was hell, inflicting its own awful suffering.

She was 30 years old, and deathly ill.  While receiving last rites, the priest’s crucifix raised above her, Julian experienced a series of visions lasting several hours.   During this time, she felt engulfed in the love of God.  Just immersed in love.  She saw a vision of Jesus saying to her the words she became most remembered for.  Jesus said to Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

It was an overpowering mystical experience that stayed with her the rest of her life.  She did recover, and lived another 44 years.  Aside from becoming physically healthy, her circumstances changed very little.  With 14th century England in turmoil all around her, reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Plague, engaged in a Hundred Years War with French rulers, she would go on to write about these revelations, living within the confines of her anchorhold on St. Julian’s church in Norwich.  The writings were called “Revelations of Divine Love.”  It’s the earliest known writing in the English language by a woman.  Because of the vastness of Divine Love, which she often likened to that of a compassionate mother, Julian wrote to whoever in the wide world beyond her anchorhold might read her words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

We don’t know if Horatio Spafford ever heard these words from Julian of Norwich.  Probably not.  But he echoes their spirit when he wrote the hymn that includes the line, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

This is a hymn born out of tragedy.  Chances are if you know the story behind just a couple hymns, this is one them.  Or maybe not.  Today is Father’s Day, and Horatio Spafford is remembered, through this hymn, as one who experienced great loss as a father.

He was a wealthy lawyer from Chicago, active in the Presbyterian church.  He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son.  They used their home to host meetings of church evangelists and abolitionists, supporting many of them financially.  He was heavily invested in real estate, and in 1871 the great fire of Chicago wiped out most of his wealth.  The same year their son died of scarlet fever.  Two years after the fire, the Spaffords had planned a family vacation to Europe, but at the last minute Horatio had business he needed to attend to.  The rest of the family set off, and he planned to join them as soon as he could.  In the Atlantic their ship was rammed by a British vessel also on its way to Europe.  As their ship went down, Anna was able to grab on to a piece of floating debris and was rescued, but the four girls drowned.  When she arrived in Wales nine days later, Anna sent Horatio a telegram that said: “Saved alone: what shall I do?”

He left Chicago immediately to be with Anna.  On the way, the story goes, his ship passed near the spot where the other had gone down.  Horatio was moved to write this hymn as they kept sailing.  “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  The sea billows of sorrow in the first verse are more than metaphor.  He was riding them as he wrote.

Phillip Bliss, who soon after wrote the musical composition, named the tune Ville du Havre, which I have no idea if I’m pronouncing right.  It was the name of the sunken ship.  And the sorrow continued.  Horatio and Anna had another child, a son named after Horatio, who also died of scarlet fever, when he was four.

In brushing up on the details of this story, and deciding to make a link to Julian of Norwich, I hadn’t realized the time span between them  is such a round number.  The tragedy and the hymn of response were in 1873.  It was exactly 500 years after Julian had her vision of Christ that all shall be well.

In looking for a biblical companion to this story, one need look no further than Job.  The scripture declares Job a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil.  Job is wealthy.  He is generous with his wealth.  He has many children, seven sons and three daughters.  But Job becomes a pawn in a rivalry between The Lord and the Satan.  In Hebrew, The Satan means “The accuser,” and the Satan accuses Job of being righteous only because of his prosperity and the relative ease of his life.  The Satan challenges the Lord to take away Job’s wealth and his children, and see if the righteous Job still praises God.  The Lord accepts the challenge, and Job loses everything, but still blesses God’s name.  The Satan comes up with another challenge, and the Lord takes away Job’s health, such that he’s confined to a bed, miserable.  Most of the book of Job is poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, with “friends” in heavy quotes.  These friends spout the prevailing theology of the day to explain Job’s circumstances, which Job eloquently, and sometimes sarcastically, rejects.

And here’s a thread that runs through all three stories – Julian, Horatio and Anna, and Job.  Julian had been loaded down with fear and guilt associated with sin.  Job’s friends defend the orthodox theology of their time, that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, and tragedy is a sign of God’s punishment for sin.  What have you done wrong Job, to offend God?  As best I can tell, in what’s been written about their lives, Horatio and Anna were confronted with similar accusations.  When they returned to the US, church leaders suggested to them that their daughters’ fate at sea was God’s punishment against their family for sin.  It was enough to cause them to leave the church.  They eventually formed their own sect, called the Overcomers, and moved to Jerusalem to found the American Colony.  That’s a fascinating story in itself, if you want to look into it.

One wonders if these questions of sin and punishment were already haunting Horatio in the writing of the hymn, or, if not haunting, if he was already pre-empting his “friends” in the writing of verse three.  Our verse three starts with “Redeemed, O the bliss of this glorious thought…” and then sticks with the original lyrics after that.  But the original writing says this:

“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

I’ve always thought it strange that a song born out of grief goes so quickly in this theological direction.  Why did Horatio feel compelled to write an entire verse about sin?  But now knowing this additional part of the story, I’m guessing this is what is going on.  This was perhaps Horatio’s way of expressing what Julian of Norwich and Job also felt they had to declare.  That the pain in their lives was not a punishment from God.  That God was fully aware of whatever sin might be in their lives, but wasn’t counting it against them.

One of the potential challenges of a hymn like this, or a story like Julian, is that it can make the process of grief and sorrow appear too clean, too easily resolved.  One minute you’re on your death bed and wracked with guilt, the next minute you’re caught up in blissful communion with the love of God which alters your consciousness for the rest of your waking days.  One minute sorrows like sea billows are rolling all around, the next minute you declare with gusto “It is well, it is well with my soul.”  The entire life-long work of grief gets condensed into a few lines.

It’s one of the reasons the book of Job is so compelling —  Job’s grief, his exasperation with his lousy friends, his wrestling with God, his protests and shaking his fist at the universe.  This is most of the book of Job.  It is real and it is raw.  And when God finally does appear, it is not a revelation of all-encompassing love.  It is a revelation of the utter tininess of Job’s life and troubles in the vast creation.  The Lord appears to Job in a whirlwind.   It’s not exactly comforting, but it tells another dimension of the human journey through loss and sorrow.  Our ego confronts the vastness of the world outside the tiny anchorhold we thought was the whole of reality, and slowly we come to terms with our small place in the huge unfolding mystery.

To Julian of Norwich, God says “You are everything.”  To Job, God says “You are almost nothing.”  And Horatio and Anna Spafford likely lived between these two revelations their whole life.  And so do we.  I am everything.  I am almost nothing.

We do not come lightly and easily to the place of saying “It is well with my soul.”  But in singing the words over the years, we might come to experience them in new depths each time.

So, just one more thing to tie in here.  And now I invite you to be aware of the comforter that you’re leaning against.  Feel it against your back, look around at others in front of you.  These lovely works have been pieced together and knotted by many of you over the last year.  Today we will end our service by blessing these comforters and singing another of our Twelve Hymns, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  We’ll send them up to Mennonite Central Committee which will send them where they are most needed.  Often they go to refugee camps.  The Spafford family story of losing children en route has been re-lived by many of these refugees desperately fleeing violence.  The places that receive the survivors, like our own country, serve as an anchorhold onto something solid.  These comforters are a small revelation in themselves.  That there is love and compassion, and we all need it.

May it be well with your soul, and may these comforters, wherever they end up, do the very thing they are named for.





Endless song: Sacrament, Seeger, and the Sirens |June 11

Twelve Hymns Project: My life flows on

Texts: Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2



Back in the fourth century the great North African theologian Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.”  It’s a phrase that stuck.  Many Christian denominations still use this as a definition for sacrament.  An outward sign of an inward grace.

Through the centuries the Western Church developed the rituals and meaning of sacraments, eventually recognizing seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders or Ordination.  These signs are outward.  They are enacted, spoken, even tasted.  They involve material reality: water, oil, bread and wine, bodies.  Through these things, one experiences the Presence of God, an inward grace.  Eventually the church taught that although not everyone had to receive every sacrament, the sacraments were necessary for salvation.

It’s quite a thing for an institution, and its leaders, to hold the means of salvation.  To be the access point for experiencing the grace of God.  That’s a lot of power.

During the 16th century various Anabaptists questioned and ultimately rejected this notion of salvation and the sacraments.  They still practiced many of them, but debated whether they were “ceremonies,” “witnesses,” or “mere symbols.”  The Anabaptists emphasized the life of the Spirit rather than the authority of the institution.  The broader Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers taught that one need not go through an ordained priest in order to have access to God’s grace.  All this led to a greater leveling of power, a democratization of the sacred.  Later generations of Anabaptists, from whom Mennonite come, rarely used the language of sacraments.

More recently, in 21st century North America, we’re reconsidering the sacramental.  Marlene Kropf, a leading voice in Mennonite worship, has proposed the idea of “Singing as a Sacrament.”  She writes this: “It may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing…The experience of hymn singing in worship can and does satisfy the deep need for a personal encounter with the sacred in a way that engages the whole person: body, heart, and mind” (Singing: A Mennonite Voice, p. 132).

There will be plenty of time this summer to unpack that idea of singing as sacrament.  As someone who didn’t grow up singing hymns or harmony, I’ve experienced the practice as an acquired taste, and have yet to acquire full proficiency on the bass line.  But I have come to deeply appreciate worship where the congregation is the choir and the body is the primary instrument.  It certainly fits with a theology of community, where the sacred is democratized in the voice and daily life of each person.  The inward grace of each individual is expressed as an outward collective harmony – a sign of peace and beauty in our troubled world.  Augustine is perhaps giving an enthusiastic thumbs up from beyond the veil.

And so I find it fitting that the number one song for this Twelve Hymns series, the first song discussed and the top voted getter, is a song about singing.  “My life flows on in endless song…how can I keep from singing?”

The sermons this summer will take the song or songs of that week as their starting point.  We’ll look more closely at the words we’re singing and their relation to scripture and theology.  Some weeks we’ll look at the story behind hymn, and occasionally we’ll get some commentary on the hymnology.  And along the way, we’ll chew on this idea of the sacramental – song as a vessel for the Divine presence.


On Tuesday Phil Hart walked into the church office and delivered the document that became today’s bulletin cover.  It’s the original 1869 text and music for what we know as HWB 580, My life flows on.  It has remained mostly the same after nearly 150 years.  Two of the most obvious differences are a different title, and our current song making what was once the end of a single verse, verse 2, into the chorus now sung after each verse.

A less obvious, but significant difference is the change of one word in that line.  The original says “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”  HWB 580 says, “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”

It’s a change connected to what brought the song out of relative obscurity back in the 1960’s.  Pete Seeger learned about the song from his friend Doris Plenn, who had written an additional verse that said:

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Peter Seeger included this verse with the original, and changed some of the specifically Christian language to the more universal language of “truth” and “love.”  And with that, it entered the mix of the many folk music anthems of the 60s and 70s that sung of a better world beyond racism, nationalism, and warfare.

If you’re in my generation, or maybe this applies to other generations too, you’re likely more familiar with the Enya version from the early 90’s, which stuck with the Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn lyrics.  Our current hymn is mostly 1860’s with a dash of 1960’s,  although I’d love to see that additional verse about trembling tyrants and friends in prison cells in our hymnals.

For what it’s worth, when Pete Seeger died in 2014, of all the places in Columbus that could have hosted a concert honoring his life and music, it was this sanctuary that was filled to overflowing with folks hearing Bill Cohen and his friends play the Pete Seeger classics.  I was here for most of it, but can’t remember if this one made the cut.

The Sirens

“My life flows on” has a universal appeal, and all versions remain rich in biblical imagery.  We selected two especially relevant passages to be read today.  The chorus “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging” is a lovely summary of the opening lines of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountain shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

The lyric about hailing the new creation is drawn from 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  For Paul, the time of salvation was not merely something in the distant future, but something present even now.  “See,” he writes.  “ now is the day of salvation.”

And this gets at one of the overarching big ideas within the hymn.

This is a song about song, and we are indeed the singers, but there’s something else going on with song here that makes this hymn so captivating.  The lyrics start with “My life.”  “My life flows on.”  But as they continue we are directed toward a much larger song.  The hymn is not just the hymn of my life or even our collective life, it’s about “the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”  It is something to first hear, and then join.  “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.  It finds an echo in my soul.  How can I keep from singing.”  Our singing is but a mere echo of the endless song that draws us toward itself.  This is the theological idea that we are not simply moved forward by history, all of the stuff in the past pushing us from behind into what comes next.  But we are drawn forward, lured into the future by the future, enticed by the new creation that calls us toward itself.  Sings us toward itself.  We are led into the space ahead of us where Christ already is.  We hear that far off hymn, and its beauty raises us above earth’s lamentation.

It’s like a reversal of the sirens in Greek mythology.  The Greeks told stories about the sirens who sang beautiful songs from their far off island.  Sailors would hear the songs and sail towards it, only to have their ships broken up on the rocks around the island.  The beauty of the siren song was deceptive.  Its ultimate purpose was to lure one toward destruction.

In the Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the siren song, but was fully aware of the danger.  So he had all his sailors bind him to the mast of the ship and under no circumstances were they to unbind him.  He was disabled from being able to steer the ship toward the island of the sirens.  The sailors were all protected by putting beeswax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the song.  As they got close enough to hear the sirens, Odysseus becomes entranced with the music and demands his sailors to untie him, but they keep to his original orders, and they sail through and out of range of the sirens, despite Odysseus’ protests.

“My life flows on” seems to flip this story.  We are already close to being dashed against the rocks to our own destruction, but the far off song calls us to itself.  And it is in moving toward that song that we move toward our salvation.  Not merely through the taking of certain sacraments – water, oil, bread, cup — as necessary as these may be along the way, but by participating in that very broadly defined sacrament of song.  It is a universal song, that draws activists and office holders toward it.  People in the pews, and people in the streets.   It is this song that rises above earth’s lamentation, of which our singing, as powerful as it may be, is merely an echo.



The Spirit of truth | May 28

Texts: John 14:15-17; Acts 1:6-14


Last Friday the New York Times published an essay titled “We aren’t built to live in the moment.”  The authors point out that none of the things we’ve previously proposed that set humans apart from other animals actually do.  It turns out language, tools, cooperation, and culture aren’t unique to us.

But, they argue, there is a defining characteristic that sets us, humanity, apart: “We contemplate the future.”  They write: “Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to ‘commencement’ speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.”

The essay goes on to weave insights from psychology, brain science, and various forms of therapy to make its case.  Much more than looking back at the past, we seem to direct most of our mental energy toward anticipating the future and adjusting our behavior accordingly.  We do the things we do and feel the things we feel because of the kind of future we anticipate, sometimes the one just seconds ahead, sometimes years and decades.

Our future mindedness impacts even the way we form and reform memory.  Rather than being an archive of past events that remain stagnant, the brain has a way of continually rewriting history.  New contexts, and the kind of future we anticipate add fresh content to past events and change the way we remember them.  The essay states: “The fluidity of memory may seem like a defect, especially to a jury, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a feature, not a bug, because the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.”

These authors propose that our gaze is a forward gaze, even when we seem to be looking back, and that’s what makes us uniquely human.

The essay comes out at the same time we are pondering this text from John 14, when Jesus is speaking to his disciples, anticipating his own death.  It was the lectionary reading for last week, but since we asked our new members to give commentary on their own faith journey rather than an exegetical study of the day’s lection, we’re carrying the John 14 passage forward into this week alongside this week’s lection of Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1.  ­­­

With his crucifixion looming just days away, a future Jesus has already determined he will not avoid, he tells his companions he will send them the Spirit of truth, to be with them forever.  The Spirit gets referenced in all kinds of ways throughout Scripture, but here it’s specifically referred to as the Spirit of truth.

In a time when we are discovering the fluidity of memory, we also seem to be encountering the fluidity of truth.

Truth is getting a lot of press these days.  It’s made its way from the Religion section to the front page.  A few years back Steven Colbert proposed the term “truthiness” as a sign of the times.  More recently, commentators have wondered whether we are in a post-truth society where alternative facts, fake news, and pure opinion rule the day.

So when John tells of Jesus offering the Spirit of truth, it has a fresh kind of urgency to it.

The word truth appears over 100 times throughout the Greek New Testament.  It’s a common word.  But I somehow missed until this past week what the word evokes.  It goes all the way back to Greek mythology.  So, on this Ascension Sunday, when Jesus rose into heaven, please come with me on a very brief tour of Hades, which I’m sure, is the reason you came to church today.  Hopefully it will help us discover something about the truth.

In Greek mythology, there are multiple rivers in the underworld of Hades.  Of these, the river Styx has the most name recognition, aided by the 70’s rock band that took on that name.  The river Styx served as the boundary between Earth and the underworld, the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  In the Greek imagination, the newly deceased were ferried across the river Styx to the entrance of the underworld.

Another river within Hades was the Lethe, and this is reason for the brief tour.  Its waters were shallow, not for ferrying, but for drinking.  The Lethe was the river of forgetfulness.  The dead would line up along its shores and were required to drink from the Lethe in order to forget the life they had just lived.  The Lethe was a meandering, murmuring river, peaceful.  When one departed the earthly life, its waters wiped away memories both painful and joyful.

This concludes our brief tour of Hades.

John writes that Jesus offers his followers “The Spirit of truth.”  The Greek word for truth is alethea.  The prefix “a” is a negative, as in “un” or “non.”  It negates whatever comes after it.  A-lethea.  And we know what lethe means.  We were just there.  It’s that river of forgetfulness.  It’s where you drink to forget what it has meant to be alive.  Truth, a-letheia, means the undoing of forgetfulness.  To do truth is to un-forget.  The Spirit of truth is the spirit of un-forgetting.  It negates the ultimate negator: forgetfulness.

Built into this concept of truth is the understanding that there is a wide stream of forgetfulness that flows not just through the land of the dead, but the land of the living.  Well before we breathe our last, we all drink from the river Lethe.

We forget who we are.  We forget where we come from.  We forget where we belong, and that we belong.  Not to mention we increasingly forget where we put our keys, but that’s another story.

In forgetting, our consciousness gets colonized by whatever is around to tell us who we are.  To tell us where we belong, or that we don’t.

And so here’s where we seem to be.  We are creatures who are future minded.  We contemplate and anticipate the future like no other animal.  These abilities have brought us to the point we are now in history.  They impact how we go about our days.  Even our past experiences can be shaped and molded by the kind of future we imagine.  Even what I’m saying now was put down with thought toward how it might relate to what might come next.  Our gaze is a forward gaze, however subtle it might be.

And yet we have been given the Spirit that would have us not forget.  The Spirit of a-lethea, the Spirit of truth.  “It will be with you always,” Jesus said.  It speaks of a reality that undergirds and makes possible everything else.  It preserves and seasons and enriches and guides.  It keeps us from forgetting what we must not forget in order to truly live.

So where does the Spirit of truth direct our gaze?  Is it a gaze backyard, forward, always both at the same time?  Is it working against or with our tendency to always be glancing ahead?

There’s another gaze going on in the Acts scripture for today.  It’s the one of the disciples gazing up into heaven.  Jesus had been appearing to them off and on after his Easter resurrection, but this is the final time.  He leaves them by ascending up into the heavens.  And they’re left there gazing up.

This story is a cosmological conundrum for us living on the other side of the Copernican revolution.  We no longer conceive of our world as a three tiered universe: the earth and underworld surrounded below by the deep seas, and above by the heavens.  In a universe in which we’re no longer in the center, up extends out in all directions depending on where you’re standing on the round earth, and satellites are yet to locate a place called heaven, it’s tempting to get hung up in the disconnect between premodern and contemporary ways of making sense of the world.  Ways of speaking truth.

What’s the truth here the author is trying to communicate?  What must the disciples and we not forget about who Jesus was and is in order to live truthful lives?

Just as the underworld played a key part in the pre-modern mind for the meaning of death, the heavens played a key part for the meaning of life.  What happened in the heavens had direct impact on the land of the living.  Whoever was or wasn’t exerting influence up there played itself out it what happened down here.

This story of the ascension has brought theologians to speak of the Cosmic Christ.  The Christ who was in the beginning, is now, and will continue to be.  The Christ who Jesus embodied, but is not limited to the short lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.  The ascension means that everything Jesus represented: mercy, healing, boundary shattering love, relentless truth telling, is a force making itself available to the universe on a cosmic scale.  It has ascended, or to put it in more philosophical language, it permeates the very fabric of Being itself.  It is cosmic.

But most of the time we don’t live on a cosmic scale.  We live in our earth bound fleshy bodies, oriented toward our little future, trying not to forget.  We wake up each morning to the first day of the rest of our lives and do what we need to do for the day’s work.  We gaze back, we gaze up, we gaze forward.

In a world permeated by the cosmic Christ, with the Spirit of truth ever with us, the living of our days hold out the possibility of being enriched from all directions.  To un-forget that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.  To live into a future in which the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.  To consider that we, like the disciples, are witnesses to all this.  To participate, even in small ways, in this great cosmic unfolding.

Nehemiah’s Action | April 30

Texts: Mark 3:1-6; Nehemiah 5:1-13

These shirts are going to be great for BREAD gatherings and the softball team and Pride parade and other events, but my favorite part is that I can get away with wearing a tshirt to church once a year.  Very comfortable.

Tomorrow evening members of 40+ congregations across Franklin County will gather at the Celeste Center at the fairgrounds.  We are white, black, and brown;  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Unitarian Universalist.  We’ll be joined by public officials with whom BREAD has been in conversation over the last months, and in some cases years.  We’ll ask them to publicly commit to working with us to achieve some very specific solutions to problems we’ve been researching.  Such as: creating a municipal ID card for immigrants and homeless folks to better access city services; preferential contracts from the city for companies that employ workers with criminal records who otherwise find it nearly impossible to get a job, and implementing restorative practices in Columbus City Schools to reduce suspensions and the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects people of color.

These are all big issues, each one, and I frequently wonder if BREAD bites off more than it can chew each year as we collectively decide on the next area in Franklin County we want to focus our energy and power.  But BREAD has a track record for getting things done.  We helped create a land bank that demolishes homes on abandoned properties.  We worked with the Mental Health board to open a clubhouse that creates community and opportunities for folks living with mental illnesses.  And members of this congregation were influential in helping create restorative justice circles as a way of diverting youth from the juvenile court system.

Since December I’ve been serving on the steering committee for the current campaign for restorative practices in the schools.  BREAD asks a lot of us, and I’ve found it at times exhausting and exasperating, but overall, overall to be one of the best ways we have available to us, Columbus Mennonite Church, to be in solidarity with people across the county most affected by these problems, and to affect systemic change, as slow and incremental as it may be.

This big public gathering tomorrow is called the Nehemiah Action.  It’s called the Nehemiah Action because it is modeled after the narrative of Nehemiah chapter five in the Hebrew Scriptures, a common text for Jews and Christians.  So I’d like to walk through that passage together to see what it has to say and how this applies to the work of doing justice.

The passage is printed on the back of the bulletin insert, but first let me just set it up a bit with the historical context.

Painting with very broad strokes here: The Hebrews , the children of Israel, were formed as a people through enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt.  Moses emerges as a leader who has an encounter with the god Yahweh.  Yahweh delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through Moses gives the people the Torah, the law, the teaching.  And the aim of the Torah is the creation of a people who live under the laws of justice and love of neighbor as this kind of alternative society to the ways of Pharaoh.  The Israelites settle in the land of Canaan, they have judges and prophets and kings who lead them, they build a temple to Yahweh, but after about 400 years of kingship the holy city, Jerusalem, is conquered by the Babylonian empire under the rule of Mr. Nebuchadnezzar.  The temple is destroyed, and the people are carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind to work the land.  50-60 years later Babylon is conquered by the Persians, under the rule of Cyrus the Great.  The new Persian policy, by decree, is to encourage all these different ethnic groups under its rule to establish their own religious practices and local governance in their homelands.  So over the following decades many of the Jews, as they’re starting to be called, return to the area around Jerusalem.  They rebuild the temple, and they rebuild the protective wall around the city.  Nehemiah comes on the scene as a governor of Judea about 100 years after Cyrus’ initial decree.  We’re in the mid 400’s before Christ.

That’s the back drop of Nehemiah chapter 5.  There’s a rebuilding process going on after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.

Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Let’s pause here right away, and not get too hung up on the sexist language of “the people and their wives,” who apparently weren’t a part of “the people.”  That’s reason for its own outcry, but that’s how it was…The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.”  There is a crying out going on, a collective raising of the voice, signaling something aint right.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the outcry has an essential place in the redemptive work of God.  Way back under Egyptian slavery, the very first action to counter Pharaoh is that the people groan and “cry out” under their oppression.  It is this crying out that activates Yahweh, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham and Sara; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, and his collection of wives and reproductive partners.  It is the cry, the outcry, of those experiencing hardship that initiates the movement, activates new possibility.  The cry awakens the consciousness of those previously unaware of the pain, alerts even God to the injustice, and causes God and those tuned in to the spirit of God to remember who they are and what they are to be about.

There’s a specific cause of the outcry in this chapter.  There’ve been some poor harvests, and people need to feed their families, and those with means are requiring those in need to put up their fields and houses and vineyards and children in pledge for grain.  The only way to get food was to offer your dearest assets as collateral, your land, the labor of you and your children.  And once those are gone, you’re stuck in debt slavery.  And it is their own kin who are doing this.  The people say in verse 5: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves…we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  A key purpose of the Torah was to keep this kind of thing from happening.  To not become like Pharaoh’s Egypt.  But it’s happening.  Aaiigghhh.  We’re crying out.

Outcry can awaken the consciousness of those within earshot of the pain.  It is the first signal that something is not right.  It can help us to remember our covenant and commitments.  It’s the first key moment of this story.  The outcry.

A second key moment is this appeal from the people in the first part of verse five: “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.”  This assertion of a shared humanity, a common value for life, is at the basis of morality.  “Our children are the same as their children.”  You can almost hear the chant “Black Lives Matter” as a direct descendant of this.  Or, “Refugees welcome.”  “Our children are the same as their children.”  Theologically, we also say that we are all created in the image of God, or that we are all children of God.  This moment is what makes the cry of the other a shared concern.  If we have the same flesh, and our children have the same value and aspirations, we are tied up in a common reality, and your cry becomes a part of my story.

Believing this is a vulnerable way to live, and can become overwhelming without being grounded in the Source of Being and goodness and life which we call God.

There’s the outcry, and the appeal that this affects all of us.

Verse 6 is a pivotal part of the story.  Nehemiah says, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.”  This is the moment when the cry from the outside makes its way inside and lodges itself within the hearer.  If you hear the outcry, really hear it, you might get angry.  You might, like Nehemiah, get very angry.

I don’t know when it was in life that I was introduced to the idea that anger can be a constructive motivating energy, but it still goes against just about all of my peaceful Mennonite-ness.  I don’t particularly like being angry, and I just generally feel like a better person when I’m not angry.  I have even prided myself on being not angry.  The not-angry white guy.  Anger sometimes feels like a failure of will.

Hebrew is such a visceral language.  The literal translation for anger is usually to have burning nostrils.  They don’t say “she was angry.”  They say, “her nostrils were burning.”  Even God gets hot nostrils when God is angry.  Anger is hot, fiery, felt in the breath.

Anger is a powerful force.  It can be destructive.  We included the Mark 3 reading today because it’s the only time in the gospels when it explicitly says that Jesus was angry.  Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath and he brings forward a man with a withered hand.  And he asks everyone if it’s lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath.  And everyone is silent because there were strict laws about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.  The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, and they are silent.  Mark says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  How many paintings have you seen of an angry Jesus?  Not many.  Jesus proceeds to invite this man to stretch out his hand, which is restored.”  Jesus harnesses anger as an energy for healing.

Jesus gets angry. Nehemiah gets very angry.  At BREAD house meetings in the fall we are asked the question, “What makes you angry?”  How we answer this question helps determine the area of focus for the coming year.  I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.

What makes you angry?

Nehemiah does something with his anger.  Something big, and, ultimately, healing.  He does not hold his anger in, and does not try to deal with it as an individual.  Verse 7 says he called a great assembly. This great assembly includes the people affected by the problem, the ones who gave the initial cry, and the people with power to change the problem — the officials and, “the nobles.”

Nehemiah has already lost his Mennonite cred by becoming very angry, but he goes a step further and speaks plainly in the face of conflict.  How terrifyingly strange.  He tells the leaders “The thing that you are doing is not good.”  This is the point in the program where I start looking down at the floor, or remember I need to check my phone for something.  But I’m learning there’s a difference between attacking someone’s personal character, which this is not, and calling on someone to uphold their public duty to serve all people, which this is.  It’s a point where the tension that the people have been feeling in their lives is now made public, put out in the open.  You can feel the tension.

Nehemiah gives specific suggestions for how to address the problem: Verse 11: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields , their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.”  It’s a pretty direct and specific request, complete with a tight timeline.  This very day!

The very first Nehemiah Action turns out to be successful.  In front of that great assembly, accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, the officials agree to these requests.  They listen, and change course.  They are restored to their higher calling.  Nehemiah goes one step further and ensures there will be proper follow up to see it all happens.  The whole assembly ends with a collective Amen and expressions of praise.

And every Nehemiah Action since then has gone just as smooth and been just as successful.

We are hoping for as many of us as possible tomorrow evening to represent Columbus Mennonite, but whether you come or not, this story has something to say.  Are we willing, are you willing, to listen for the cry, wherever it comes from?  To nurture the kind of consciousness that acknowledges we are all one kindred and our children are of equal value.  And as you experience anger at whatever it may be, to do the difficult and necessary soul work that enables that nostril burning anger to be an energy that leads toward healing, in the spirit of Jesus, and not destruction.  To find a great assembly that takes you out of isolation.  A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome.  To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of your faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the Christ who invites us out of our guarded silence.  To join in spirit and in body with the great cloud of witnesses dead and alive who witness to the divine reign of justice and peace that is already being realized among us.






“Consider…” | February 26

Text: Matthew 6:24-34

Within the final 10 verses of Matthew chapter six, Jesus mentions “worry” 6 times.  Worry, Anxiety, take your pick translation wise.  Worry, as in “Do not worry.”  Anxious, as in don’t be.

In itself, telling someone not to be anxious can be predictably counterproductive.  Like we know we’re not supposed to be anxious.  We don’t want to be anxious.  When we feel anxious we get anxious about that.  We worry that we’re worrying too much.   So it goes in the land of mental loops.

In Jesus’ teaching, he highlights food and clothing as primary sources of worry.  These are basic human needs that far too few, past and present have had enough of.  And, when we do have plenty of both, we manage to find other causes for anxiety.

Jesus points away from the world of humans.  He points to the birds.  “Consider the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.”

Consider the birds.

Consider that humans have not always been sowing and reaping and gathering into barns.  As best scholars can tell, agriculture is a relatively recent experiment.  For the vast majority of our existence our ancestors were foragers, bird-like.  About 13,000 years ago humans started relating in a new way with particular plants and animals.  We domesticated them, or they domesticated us.  In different parts of the world, we started doing less foraging of perennials, less roaming, and more planting of annuals, more settling – sowing, reaping, and gathering into barns.  Even though food diversity and nutrition went down, food quantity went up, as did population.  Towns and villages got bigger and more permanent.  We cut or burned trees to plant fields in the rich soil, rerouted water sources for irrigation.  Having food reserves, we specialized into a division of labor.  And when you have barns full of food you better have a way to defend them.  Societies became organized more hierarchically.  With more ability to create and collect, trade developed and flourished.  Keeping track of what’s in the barns led to accounting, which led to writing, and eventually there are Starbucks and smart phones and rumors of self-driving cars.

And lots of food and lots of clothes.  And refrigerators, the mighty refrigerator.  The little electrified barn in your house preserving what others have sown and reaped.  How cool is that?   Our own private mini-barn.

Consider the refrigerator.

Matthew 6:25-26 “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the Holy One feeds them.”

Consider the words of Gordon Hempton, Krista Tippet’s final interview of 2016 for her podcast “On Being.”  Mr. Hempton has dedicated his life to listening.  He’s taken his ears and recording equipment to some of the quietest, and sound-rich places on earth.  He explains: “(Humans) have a very discreet bandwidth of super-sensitive hearing, and that’s between 2.5 and 5 kilohertz in the resident frequencies of the auditory canal.” He says that people often assume the human ear is adapted to best hear the human voice.  But this is not the case.  He points out that most of what he’s saying now, “except for the “s” sounds and the high-pitched sounds, fall well below that range.”

He asks, “Is there something in our ancestors’ environment that matches our peak hearing sensitivity?”

He answers his own question.  Yes, there is a perfect match: birdsong.

It turns out that considering the birds is something we’ve been doing longer than we’ve been farming.  It’s in our DNA.

And Why, Mr Hempton goes on, “would it have any benefit to our ancestors to be able to hear faint birdsong? Why would our ears possibly have evolved so that we could walk in the direction of faint birdsong?”

And he answers his own question, “Birdsong is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.”

“Isn’t that amazing?” Mr. Hempton asks his interviewer.

Consider that the birds of the air have their own ways of dealing with anxiety, and have established their own neighborhood watch system.

This year’s Winter issue from the Arc of Appalachia speaks of this.  The Arc is based in southern Ohio and is committed to buying and preserving remnants of the Eastern hardwood forest.  “Woodland sprawl,” they like to say.  A text box on a page invites the reader to consider this: “Our native songbirds have an inter-species defense pact.  When a hawk is sighted, each species alarm call is recognized by other bird species, who immediately repeat the alarm in their own dialect and pass it on to the next bird listening.  The resulting ‘siren’ song races through the forest, reaching speeds approaching 150 miles per hour” (Winter 2016-17, The Arc of Appalachia: Recovery, p. 7).

Consider this cooperative form of security.  “Do not worry about your life.  Consider the birds.”

While considering the birds in the early 1960’s Rachel Carson found great cause for anxiety.  Her research detailed that bird and other wildlife populations were being decimated by the widespread use of powerful pesticides, like DDT, and that the chemical companies had been deceptive about their dangers.  She named her book Silent Spring.  The title suggested that the birdsong which has accompanied us through our coming of age as a species was in danger of falling silent.  It’s hard to consider the birds if there’s a silent spring.  Her writing is seen as the beginning of the environmental movement.  It also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Consider the ways that 13,000 years of agriculture have brought us civilization and prosperity.  Consider how the fortunate ones have no worry of where their food or clothes will come from.  Consider that the same agricultural revolution that brought us refrigerators also brought us DDT, which threatened to silence the birds, that neither sow nor reap nor store into barns.

Consider what we’ve created in just a few thousand years.  To quote Mr. Hempton: “Isn’t that amazing?”

Are we feeling less or more anxious than when we started this long-running experiment?

In the verse before speaking about human worry and bird foraging Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, mammon referred to wealth, or money, or property.  The message about anxiety, birds, and lilies, and seeking first the Kingdom of God is all spoken in the context of economy, the complex network of relationships of giving and receiving, trust and reciprocity.

Mammon wasn’t considered evil in itself.  In fact, the Aramaic translation of Hebrew Scriptures uses the word in Deuteronomy 6:5, which Jesus will later lift up as the greatest of all commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your Mammon.”  In English we translate that as strength.

You shall love the Lord with all your mammon.  With all your substance.  With all you can muster.

You cannot serve both God and mammon.

In the Divine economy, mammon has a purpose of loving and glorifying God.  Mammon can add to the abundance of creation.  It can multiply that which it touches.  It can add value.  It can enrich the quality and diversity of life.  It can reduce anxiety.

How are we doing with that?

Maybe God is the one doing the experimenting.  Seeing how these humans do with the gift of Mammon – wealth, money, strength.  Reminding us that mammon must always be put in the service of life, and not life in the service of Mammon.

The other greatest commandment Jesus will combine with the first is the command from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the Divine economy, the neighbor includes the birds and the lilies.  The Holy One feeds them and they enthusiastically participate in the economy of life on which we’re all dependent.  Economy and ecology become synonyms.  One can imagine headlines on the front page of the business section: consumer contentment is up, birdsong is on the rise, the lilies are flourishing.

How about this treasonous thought: You cannot serve God and unfettered global capitalism.

These are anxious times.  Here in the homeland there are promises of dedicating more resources to defending our own barns.  Stripping away some of the laws that were on the side of the birds and lilies.  Building walls around ourselves.  Casting blame on a particular group of people and rounding them up for removal. These are actions born out of deep anxiety.

Consider how to resist an anxiety based economy without being overcome with the very anxiety we seek to resist.

Consider that we will need to develop a neighborhood watch system much like the birds.  Such that when a member of our community is detained for deportation, and a family torn apart, a siren call goes through the network, and a rapid response team is ready to inject compassion and advocacy into the situation.  The Central Ohio Worker Center is in the process of creating something very much like this throughout Columbus.  They are hosting a dinner and fundraiser a week from this evening to invite a wider circle into their work.  If you haven’t already seen it, we will link to it in the Tuesday announcements.

Consider your participation in an economy of life.  Consider the exchanges, the giving and receiving of love and support and solidarity, that multiply and enrich the health of the community.  Consider prayer as an essential act of loving God and your neighbor and yourself at the same.

Consider the great company of women and men who have sought first the kingdom of God.  Consider that, 800 years ago, St. Francis was known to stop along the path and speak with the birds, much to his disciples amazement and delight.  Consider that the current leader of the Roman Catholic church has chosen this name for himself.  Consider seeking out his words at least once a week.  Consider who else you need to listen to these days.  Consider a place where you will look at and listen to the birds.

Jesus said: “Seek first the kin-dom, the global interspecies family, of God, and God’s righteousness and justice, and all these things will be given you as well.”

The (third) way | February 19

Text: Matthew 5:38-48

If and when word gets out that you’re a pacifist, or that you’re committed to nonviolence , you will no doubt, at some point, encounter questions like these:  What would you do if someone broke into your home and attacked a family member?  If we have another 9/11 should we all just turn the other cheek?  And what about Hitler?  If we were all pacifists, Hitler would have won and Nazism would have taken over the world.  Sound familiar?

These questions carry certain assumptions about what it means to live nonviolently.  They may be asked out of genuine curiosity – like, really, how would it work?  I’m interested.  Or they may be intended to make peaceableness appear weak, ineffective, intellectually ridiculous, and just downright impossible, even immoral.  After all, what kind of person would just stand by and do nothing while someone they loved was being harmed?  Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like these in conversations where you’ve “come out” as being against violence.  Perhaps you’ve asked questions like these to yourself, wondering if nonviolence is a path you are able to take with integrity.

It would be hard to overemphasize how key to this discussion are Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:38-48.  Packed into this short passage are the core principles of Christian pacifism.  And just as an aside, you may already notice that I’m using some language interchangeably so as not to get hung up on “pacifism” as a rigid ideology.  Nonviolence.  Peaceableness.  A newer field of thought talks about Just Peacemaking.  Within this core teaching are also phrases often used as weapons against pacifist understandings to prove their impracticality.  It’s a passage Mennonites, more than most streams of Christian tradition, have tried to live out.  Although since I said something good about Mennonites I have to follow it up with the more humble and self-deprecating observation that we have also used this text in harmful ways.  I’ll give an example in a bit.

Today’s teachings follow the text Mark preached on last week.  Jesus is offering concrete illustrations of how scripture might be fulfilled, of what the God-ward trajectory of shalom, holistic well-being, might look like.  This section includes the final two of those “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” lines from Jesus

Verse 38 begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  Gandhi had his own observation on this by famously saying, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  As harsh as the ancient measure sounds in its tit for tat demands, it’s likely that this law was initially intended as a limitation of violence.  In a world where a wrong done against a family member or tribe called for seven-fold, or hundred fold vengeance against the offending party, defining justice as a one for one exchange would be a major step in stopping the escalation of violence.  An eye for an eye – No more!  But even this, Jesus teaches, does not break the cycle of violence.

How one translates the next words goes a long way in how one understands the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.  The NRSV says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”  If one takes this translation choice, which, nearly all English translations have done, we are taught that an evildoer should not be resisted.  In other words, pacifism as a passive act.  Faithfulness as nonresistance, whatever the harm may be.  Nonresistance became the main interpretative emphasis of North American Mennonites in the 20th century – and here’s that example.  This interpretation led many Mennonite leaders to not join or support the Civil Rights movement because it involved too much active and assertive and public resisting.  “Do not resist an evildoer.”  Full stop.  Nonresistance.

Fortunately there has been some important scholarship and thinking to help us now resist that interpretation.

When the word translated “resist” shows up in other literature, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is frequently used as a military term.  To resist violently.  To resist with lethal force.  Some better ways of wording this remark from Jesus could be, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” Or, “Do not resist an evildoer in such a way as to perpetuate harm.”  Or, more concise: “Do not mirror evil.”  The apostle Paul gets at this idea in Romans 12 when he says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Don’t respond to violence in kind.  Don’t let violence limit the options from which you respond.  Resist with good.

This one shift of translation in Jesus’ words changes the entire tone of the teaching and is more in line with the transforming initiatives that follow.  Rather than passively accepting one’s fate, Jesus gives different examples, specific to that time and culture, of how one might transform a situation without causing harm to the other person.

This is what we had some fun with during the children’s time with turn the other cheek, give the second garment, and go the extra mile.  The two additional teachings, “Give to the one who begs,” and “”Don’t refuse the one who wants to borrow,” are examples of the disciple being the one in the position of power.  But in those first three, the disciple has less power – a familiar arrangement for this open air congregation of Jewish peasants living in Roman occupied Palestine.

Rather than being instances of allowing the other person to express abusive power unchecked, Jesus presents his listeners with examples of transforming a situation by doing an unexpected act – asserting one’s dignity as a human being, calling on the other person to recognize one’s humanity.  Although there’s no guarantee it will “work,” it has the effect of actively disrupting the oppressor/oppressed relationship.  It provides opportunity for something new to emerge.

Here’s a 21st century story of this in action.  It comes from a friend, Jeremy Garber, and was included in an article he wrote a number of years ago:

Jeremy and his friends frequented a restaurant that had hired a new security guard who seemed to especially enjoy his power.  He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”

One day the guard was sitting, leaned back in his seat, feet up on a table.  One of Jeremy’s friends, Paul, being a fair minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”

Jeremy writes: “The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’”

So Paul had some options.  He could have done something that might have escalated the violence, he could have made a logical argument against gun violence, he could have walked out….

But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected.  He reached back to the counter, grabbed a plastic spork, and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” And then Jeremy writes this.  “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (our group of friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.”  (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, pp. 12-14, November 16, 2004 issue)

A way Anabaptists have come to talk about such transforming action is a “third way.”  The primary two options we often see as available to us are deeply engrained in our evolutionary biology.  Fight or flight.  We can engage with all the strength and force we’re capable of, knowing that one or both parties are going to lose – fight; or we can turn and run, leave the situation and concede power to the other – flight.  We now know that these responses are embedded in the oldest part of our brains, near the brain stem, sometimes called the “reptilian brain.”  They are responses the animal kingdom developed for survival, so we can be grateful to them in many ways.  They are there as options, but they are not the only responses available to us, and this thing called the prefontal cortex enables us to tap into another level of consciousness.

Jesus, and other great spiritual leaders, suggest we can rise above our reptilian inheritance and consider third ways.  Whether it be asserting one’s dignity, as in the case of turning the other cheek.  Or publicly exposing the injustice and unfairness of a situation, as in the case of giving the second garment (quite literally exposing), or whether it be using the just laws of the land in one’s own favor, as is the case of going the extra mile.  Or, to misquote Yogi Berra, when you come to a spork in the road, take it.

So, we might suggest something like this for those opening scenarios:  If foreign terrorists attack your country, go on a school building rampage all over the lands they come from.  If someone breaks into your house while you’re home, ask them what they need and if you can help them find it.  Regarding Hitler – Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that if enough of the population of the pre-dominantly Christian nation of Germany would have also put on those armbands with yellow stars, in solidarity with Jews, it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for the Nazi forces to isolate, round up, and execute the Jews.

All these responses are highly contextual, and, again, they are never guaranteed to work.  They may be different for men and women.  There may be times when flight is by far the best option.  Sometimes a wise use of strength and force may be what is needed to protect innocent life.  And I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing Jeremy’s friend Paul was white.  Had he been a young man of color, reaching back for an unknown object may be one of the most life-endangering things he could have done.

All this to say that this is not a new legalism, but a new way of thinking and acting.  It’s vitality important that we elevate these stories to invigorate our imaginations.  So I am officially opening a Third Way Thinking file on my computer that I would love to populate with stories from your lives.  Not stories about King or Gandhi, but everyday stories, either about something you did, or something you observed, even an online exchange.  I’d like to collect these, and will find a way to share them down the road.  Here’s another example, very simple, that I remember from someone in the Cincinnati congregation where I pastored before.  I’ll call her Cindy.  Cindy had two school aged children and another mother would frequently say negative things about Cindy’s children to Cindy.  So she decided every time this happened, she would give a compliment to that mother’s children.  Miraculously, the insults soon stopped and the relationship improved.  I anxiously await your stories, this week, or half a year from now.  I’ll keep the file open.

But we’re not done quite yet with this passage.

After giving some examples of ways of resisting harm without mirroring it, Jesus goes nuclear, or un-nuclear, dropping the ultimate peace bomb, one of his most radical teachings, the final “You have heard that it was said.”  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love… your…enemies.’”  Just when we thought we were getting the hang of this…  All of those transforming initiatives and creative, witty responses are overshadowed by these words: “Love your enemies.”  The point is not to win.  Love, it seems, is its own point.  Its own end.  As the scriptures say elsewhere, love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law.

Booker T. Washington once said, “Don’t ever let them pull you down so low as to hate them.” (don’t know reference).

In a polarized climate, Loving your enemies can feel like a betrayal of one’s tribe.  Like, how could you?  Especially when the enemies are actively harming you and/or people you love and/or vulnerable people.  How could you?  How could you?  It likely has something to do with the difference between loving and liking.  We don’t have to like our enemies, at least not yet.  But love, in this context, has less to do with feeling, and more to do with concrete ways that we relate to one another.

And there’s always that closest of all enemies, our own inner violence and tendency to project our own pathologies onto other people.  If we look with any kind of honesty at all, we will find plenty of violence within us.  We are our own enemies.  But Love your enemies.  Love is the fountain of all transformation.  Love is so close to that Reality we call God that the letter of 1 John goes right ahead and says “God is love.”  Christ is love.  Christ in us, which is so much more than just us trying to be good.  It is the life of God at work within us.  We too are the ones in need of transformation.

We may not always be so quick on our feet as to grab the nearest spork when someone whips out a gun, but we can prepare ourselves to love.  Love of enemies is the ultimate third way.

“So that you may be children of your Father/Mother in heaven,” Jesus says, “who makes sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

This is the entire shape of the gospel.  In Jesus’ ultimate confrontation with evil, his execution on a Roman cross, he resists with transcendent love.  Violence depends on others internalizing the violence inflicted on them and passing it along to others.  It feeds on itself, as it cycles and snowballs through history.  Jesus triumphs over evil by refusing to mirror its ways, by transforming it in his person into relationship-restoring, resurrected love.  And what he passes on to those ready to receive it is the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, and peace.  Evil has been defeated because it has been halted in its tracks, and a better way is opened up to us.  Call it a third way.  Or just call it The Way.  The love of God, triumphant, recklessly pouring itself out on the righteous and unrighteous.

101 | February 5

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Tuesday evening this space was full to overflowing for a teach-in led by the Central Ohio Worker Center.  The event was called Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  It was kind of a rally, but moreso a class.  It was designed to teach the basics of how the immigration system functions in the United States, how it’s changed especially over the last 15 years, the relationship between federal departments and local law enforcement, and how cities like Columbus fit into the mix these days.  Mark blogged about this Wednesday and included a link to the power point that Austin Kocher presented.

I think the genius of the event was that it was both a timely response to a very specific situation, and a deeper look at a decades old system.  It was a 101 class.  It was an introduction, a foundation, a teaching of basic concepts.  Personally, I left feeling more grounded, with a better sense of history, and community.

By way of holy coincidence, during the month of February, 2017, the lectionary is gifting us with another kind of 101 class.  The texts throughout the month come from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount.  This solid block of teaching from Jesus was one of the most valued guides for the early church.  It was one of the most often cited passages among our spiritual ancestors, the 16th century Anabaptists and Mennonites.  In other words, if there’s such a thing as Christianity 101, or Discipleship 101, or If- you- want- to- follow- Jesus- you- should- really- pay- attention- to- this 101, it is the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, the four weeks of February, the remaining Sundays before the season of Lent, we will be focusing on parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Hopefully it serves to further ground us in the ancient words and teachings of the church, even as we listen for what this present moment might be asking of us.

Each of the gospels organize their material a little differently in order to communicate to their original audience, and one of the important things to know about Matthew’s gospel is that it separates Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks.  The Sermon on the Mount is the first and longest of these five blocks.  The second major block is in chapter 10, then another in 13, another in chapter 18, and then the final block in chapters 24 and 25.

For a mostly Jewish audience, five blocks of teaching would have had immediate symbolic connection to the Teaching.  The Torah.  The five books of Moses that provided the foundation of Jewish life.  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   To suggest that what this teacher from Nazareth had to say was on level with the teaching of Moses would have been quite a claim.

The Sermon on the Mount readings actually started last Sunday with the Beatitudes when we had our Coming of Age service focused on Esther, so now it’s kind of like we’re walking into the 101 teach-in after it already started.  We missed the opening session.  Traffic was bad, and you had to drive around looking for parking.  You finally find a spot, walk briskly toward and into the building.  You slip in the back, find one of the few remaining seats, hoping you didn’t miss anything important.

“You are the salt of earth” is the first thing you hear, and the speaker is looking right at you.

Me?  I am the salt of the earth?  I think have missed something important.

The You is plural, the speaker clarifies, but Yes, it includes you.  You are the salt of the earth.  You all are the salt of the earth.  Ya’ll.

Salt, as in that substance which the Romans believed to be the purest and most useful of all things, product of sun and sea.  A gift of the gods and so offered up to the gods, the most primitive and elemental of offerings.  Your life is gifted to you, product of sun and sea, fruit of love and longing, and so your life becomes a gift to the world.  Salt.  You.  Your life, an offering.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in that most common of substances used for preservation.  The world has not always known refrigeration, you know.  And the world’s tendency toward decay, toward decomposition, toward slowly coming undone, bonds of relationships loosening and dissipating.  That inclination is met with salt.  Salt gives us more time.  Salt extends viability.  It preserves the good.  You.  Salt.  Your life, an agent of preservation.

You all are the salt of the earth.

Salt, as in flavor.  Our foods are so permeated with salt it’s easy to forget it’s been added in there.  It tastes better with salt.  Salt not only preserves the good, it accentuates the good.  It adds enjoyment, pleasure, it deepens the quality.  Not too much now, don’t overdo it.  It’s not all about our salty selves.  You, your life, is a sprinkling, here and there.  That’s enough.  A sprinkling that accentuates the good.

You all, collectively, are the salt of the earth:  An offering, preserving goodness, flavoring life on earth.

And not only that.  The speaker goes on.

You are the light of the world.  Again, the you is plural, and it is a collective reality.

It’s one of those statements that automatically becomes untrue if the person or group claims it for themselves.

“We are the light of the world.”  “I am the light of the world.”  If it’s the ego making this claim, it comes to represent the exact opposite reality.  It becomes colonial.  We are the light of the world and must therefore take this light into all the dark and backwards places of the earth.

But it’s different when the claim is made by an authoritative voice speaking to you.  “You are the light of the world.”  Like a reminder of a truth easily forgotten.  Jogging our memory, reminding us that although we are not the source of the light, we contain the light.  Our bodies composed of those ancient elements, fused in the cores of distant stars.  Fusion’s byproduct is light.  Those sacrificial stars gone supernova long ago, offering their creations to world.  The cosmos salted with stardust.  The periodic table drifting through space.  The elements, longing with attraction, find each other, come together, make a home together, join and evolve over an unimaginable stretch of time.  We are one of the forms to emerge from this light infused process.  It is preserved in our bodies.  Your existence is a testimony to sacrifice and love and miracle.

You are the light of the world and there is no hiding.  In fact, the speaker is now saying that the light must be public, radically visible.  “A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

You are the light of the world, and that light is brilliantly, publicly, visible, but there is a part of us that must disappear in order for that to be true.  It’s the part that serves only the self.  The part that either has an overblown sense of itself of being the light, or, equally destructive, the part that will not believe it contains any light at all.  The part that denies the Divine miracle that has birthed it and so becomes confined.

You are the light of the world.  And Lord knows the world needs light.

This is Discipleship 101.  Salt and Light.  It’s basic stuff.  Profound in its simplicity.

Rather than being asked to do anything yet, it appears we’re being asked to be.  Or even simpler than that, we’re being asked to acknowledge who we are already are – the grace that has already been given us.  It’s not “You should do salty things,” or “You need to go illuminate something.”  Rather, we are given statements of being, reminding us who we are.  You are salt.  You are light.  The doing flows out of the being.  Settle into the being, and the doing will flow naturally.

Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.

It’s sounding a little more archaic now.  He’s shifted to talking about those uniquely Jewish documents known as the law and the prophets.  Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and so on and so on.  Those Scriptures we’re frequently unsure what to do with.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”  He goes on about the value of even the tiniest notation of those ancient scriptures, the jots and the tittles of the scribes.  He’s talking about carrying out the old commandments.  How whoever does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  Surely he can’t mean all the commands of the law.

Maybe this part doesn’t apply to us as much.  Might be a good time to sneak out for a restroom break and hope our neighbor saves our seat.

Besides, we were kind of hoping for a repeal and replace approach to what we call the “Old Testament.”  Can’t these five blocks of teaching in Matthew just take the place of those five books of Moses?  We’re the new wave.  The big tent of Jews and Gentiles.  The new coaltion that’s more chill about all those rules.

But the speaker can’t seem to let it go.  Can’t just move on and start something new.  “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

I confess to personally having tendencies toward wanting to abolish.  My beef isn’t so much with ancient Judaism, but there are times when I wonder why we don’t just abolish the whole Christian project.  Or at least disassociate and try a new name.  So much baggage and harm done with that name.  I remember a visiting professor at seminary from the UK who talked about a group he knew who wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus but didn’t want to have any connections to the pitfalls of the Christian church.  Since they recognized the Sermon on the Mount was the core of Jesus’ teaching, they decided to call themselves the Mounties.

I confess I struggle mightily with some of the stances of the national Mennonite Church.  Its hesitance to address matters of racism.  It unwillingness to affirm the gifts of LGBT folks.   Can’t we just abolish the law?  Can’t we just be the Mounties?  Or just Humans?

The teacher has an alternative suggestion.  Rather than abolish, the teacher draws our attention toward fulfillment.  Toward living out the aim of the tradition.  Fulfillment.  Staying on the trajectory and being a part of the arc for where all this is headed.  Fulfilling the best intentions and best aspirations of the law and prophets, and gospels, the church teachings, and maybe even the Mennonite Confession of Faith.

It’s a salty move by the teacher.

To find and preserve the good that’s there from the beginning.  Salt, just by being salt, has the capacity to preserve that which is good.  To give us more time with what we’ve inherited.  To flavor the batch.  For example, protecting the immigrant and sojourner in your midst is one of the most repeated themes throughout the Torah.  That’s about as old and conservative a value you can find.

Those are a few of the opening ideas of Discipleship 101.  Salt, Light, Not abolish, but fulfill.

The speaker has plenty more to say.  It appears he’s just getting started.  Settle in.  Get comfortable with your neighbor.  There’s more to come.